Sarah Koenig’s piece in last week’s This American Life on Journatic, a content provider that combines US-based editors and freelancers with Filipino writers and researchers to produce copious amounts of very cheap mostly local content for a variety of clients including Tribune Company newspapers, has produced quite a ruckus, with commentary on Poynter, by David Carr, a blog post by Koenig’s main source, Ryan Smith on the Guardian and much much more.
Much of the controversy focuses on Journatic’s use of fake by-lines—apparently, contributors would select an appropriately American-sounding name from a drop-down menu of options rather than publish under their own name. It is a powerful symbol of the de-skilling and commoditization of journalistic work that many reporters feel keenly as colleagues are laid off right, left, and center and both their profession and the industry that has sustained and constrained it seems in tailspin.
But as Mathew Ingram of GigaOm points out, outsourcing and automation are bound to be part of the news business’ future. It’s too easy to simply criticize this as “pink slime journalism” and wish for a better world in which good reporting is done by countless upstanding professionals with decent salaries, job security, and generous benefits.
As revenues continue to decline and users still expect (a) a package of news and (b) regular updates of news, the old model based on in-house production by staff correspondents is hard to sustain. Part of the discussion thus has to be about what to outsource and what to automate rather than whether to outsource and automate.
I’m sure a reporter going in person to cover budget negotiations at city hall is better than having someone do it in front on a screen on the basis of online documents and maybe a single phone call to a convenient source. But that doesn’t mean it is economically sustainable to have that reporter go to that meeting.
An insistence on individually hand-crafted news stories will necessitate a wholesale move away from the kind of large-scale production we have grown accustomed to, and for all the dangers of churnalism, there is something to be said for having running coverage of many things, especially when combined with distinct, relevant, content. Cottage production works for the few, I don’t see how it will work for the many.
Koenig acknowledges this in her piece—Journatic CEO Brian Timpone gets the second to last words in the piece (full transcript here)
Brian Timpone: I would posit that it’s better to have somebody look at them than to have nobody look at them. You know what? Newspapers are firing people. Newspapers are struggling. They’re going bankrupt. We have a solution that helps solve the problem, right? Cutting staff is not the way to growth. But empowering a reporter with people in the Philippines– that’s a really smart thing to do. The criticism’s fine. But at the end of the day, what’s a better solution? … I mean do you have one? Tell me if you have a better idea, I’m all ears.
Sarah Koenig: I don’t have a better idea.
And that’s the real problem. Commercial sustainability is not a sufficient, but may well be a necessary, condition for widespread quality news journalism. In that light, the billions of revenue lost as newspaper advertisement collapsed over the last decade in the US is a far bigger problem for journalism than fake by-lines. Managing that transition–which Journatic is but one symptom of–is the challenge at hand both for journalists and industry executives.